The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, the debut novel by Stuart Turton has so many influences it is hard to know where to begin. It is designed to appeal to lovers of speculative fiction and classic crime fiction in equal measure and should succeed in satisfying everyone to some degree.
Seven Deaths starts in cliché territory. A man comes to in a forest, he has no memory of who he is or why is there, a name is on his lips. He thinks he sees a murder taking place but before he can find any evidence of it, a mysterious stranger has pressed a compass into his hand and pointed him East. He walks through woodland until he comes to a crumbling English manor house, Blackheath where, it turns out his name is Simon Bell and he is a guest for a ball to be held that evening. The ball itself is being held to commemorate the murder of the Hardcastles’ son Thomas twenty years before. Their two other children, Michael and Evelyn have come for the event as has everyone connected with that fateful day. Before long the narrator learns that he is not Dr Simon Bell after all, but Aiden Bishop and has been given loan of the doctor’s body to solve the upcoming murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. Not only that, but he will be able to live through the day seven more times in seven different bodies in order to solve the murder. Although the murder itself, when he gets to it, seems to be a suicide. Blackheath is some sort of game or test and he is not the only one in it and it is only the first person to solve the murder who gets to escape.
Seven Deaths is a giant interlocking, mindbending puzzle. As the eight days progress, Bishop is constantly flicking between bodies (he does so every time one body falls asleep or dies), running into himself, fulfilling tasks that he has seen himself perform, identifying other players and giving himself clues while he attempts to solve the murder and not be killed by a psychopath. Each body he inhabits seems to be more odious than the last and each time Aiden jumps into a new body he finds it harder to extract himself from their personal thoughts, upping the level of difficulty. He is also dealing with Anna, another player of the game who may or may not be on his side. It is not hard to imagine Turton standing in front of a giant corkboard, plotting this out in little pieces of paper containing plot points joined with different coloured twine.
It is hard to know where to start on the influences to this time-travel, body swapping, murder mystery. There are time-travel stories such as Twelve Monkeys (a character in a plague mask seems to be an obvious reference here), Travelers and Doctor Who. More obviously are the “living the same day over” stories like Groundhog Day, Run, Lola Run and more recently Source Code (which also had a crime to solve) and ARQ. Added is the mix of body-hopping tropes used in Quantum Leap (also time travel), the works of David Mitchell and Claire North’s Touch. This heady mix of speculative and science fiction tropes is liberally mixed with an Agatha Christie meets Midsomer Murders meets Downton Abbey plot involving upstairs and downstairs characters, forced marriages, laudanum dealers, dastardly blackmailers and secret children born out of wedlock. Turton’s skill is in mashing all of these influences up into something that feels remarkably original.
Seven Deaths is fun but it is also frustrating. Given the blank nature of the protagonist and his early constant body hopping it is hard to care about anything that happens to him. As the story progresses, and the mystery deepens it is possible to become more invested in Aiden, but given the four dimensional puzzle that is the plot, it often feels that he is just going through some preordained motions.
There are rules to this game but even the mysterious Plague Doctor admits that he has had to tweak the rules (how he has picked the characters that Aiden would inhabit, allowing Aiden to jump between and the various different characters and days almost randomly) in a way that gives Aiden a chance to solve the murder. And the solution is clever and unexpected, with plenty of twists. And while there are a few too many (admittedly enjoyable) contrivances needed to get there, it is impressive how Turton manages to keep the mystery tantalising and accessible enough to keep the pages turning.